Cold Water Channel Catfish
June 05, 2014
There was a time nearly a half of a century ago, when a goodly number of catmen around eastern Kansas knew how to catch cold water channel catfish. The pacesetters of this coterie of young anglers were Elden Bailey of Lawrence, Kansas, and Arky Covert of McLouth, Kansas. These two catmen and their colleagues did most of their fishing on small streams, like Stranger Creek, the Delaware and Wakarusa rivers, and other Kansas River tributaries.
Bailey and Covert began plying these streams well before the spring equinox, usually shortly after ice-out when it still was cold enough to snow. In fact, Bailey often tells of catching channel cats in the midst of a blizzard on a mid-March day when he was probing small holes along the Wakarusa, catching a respectable number of pan-sized cats on sour shad sides. According to this 45-year-old saga, it snowed so hard that Bailey couldn't get his truck freed from a snowdrift for more than a week.
But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the environment changed in Bailey and Covert's part of the world. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers arrived and dammed the Delaware and Wakarusa rivers and other small streams in eastern Kansas, creating 11 flatland reservoirs. Once damming was completed, Bailey and many other catfish anglers began fishing other waters for other species.
Some of the old-line catmen attempted to chase the reservoir cats, but were regularly flummoxed by the vast acreage of water they had to ply. And during the coldwater season, they often were overwhelmed. These catmen were ill equipped to deal with all the water and waves. The old riffle, run, and hole formulas that led them to catfish on small rivers no longer applied when the river channels were covered with more than 10 feet of water.
Many of these small river refugees were hardheaded cusses who were extremely proud of their primal methods, which caught cats galore in moving water. They shunned sonar units, trolling motors, and the other accouterments that the bass, crappie, and walleye boys were quick to adopt, relying instead on their intuition and finely honed senses to lead them to the cats.
Alas, except from May through most of September, catfishing became so trying without the appropriate tools that the catmen virtually abandoned the reservoirs for seven months of the year. And as that became a yearly tradition, a myth was fabricated that the cats in flatland lakes went into near hibernation when the water was cold. Of course, none of these primal catmen carried a thermometer to measure water temperature. Consequently, they had no way to determine the relationship between water temperature and catfish location.
Some folks around the flatland lakes of eastern Kansas knew that the Guido Hibdon clan over at Lake of the Ozarks — 100 or so miles to the east by the flight of a crow — could catch catfish all winter, but these flatlanders concluded that the Hibdons' catches couldn't be duplicated on flatland reservoirs. They attributed it to "an Ozark phenomenon," thinking erroneously that the Lake of the Ozarks was fed by thousands of springs, which made it warmer than Kansas lakes. Lake of the Ozarks is slightly warmer from late November through mid-March than many Kansas waterways, but usually not warm enough to alter catfish location or behavior.
One thing that helped the Hibdons and impeded the flatland anglers was that during the colder months in the Ozarks few hunting opportunities distracted the Hibdons. Even though they hunted deer and ran trap lines, they also continued to fish so long as the lake was free of ice. Moreover, the Hibdons fished year-round as a means of sustenance. So beginning in the 1930s, the fear of hunger forced them to learn how to catch fish by hook or by crook no matter how cold the water became. In contrast, fall and winter across the flatlands traditionally have been reserved for upland game hunting, and it has taken years to lessen the grip of that custom.
According to the best recollections of Jim Kidd of Junction City, Kansas, the first cold-water breakthrough for channel cat angling in flatland reservoirs occurred in the early 1970s at Milford Lake. That was when some anglers discovered that channel cats could be caught with shad guts and sour shad fillets on wind-blown mudflats in the upper third of the lake shortly after the ice melted in early March.
Kidd speculates that the anglers who caught the first cats were suffering from a potent dose of cabin fever, which normally erupts soon after the upland game season closes at the end of January. Thus, going fishing on a balmy March day was nothing more than a good excuse for getting outside. They caught some channel cats, though, and that catch ultimately became a minor watershed in the way anglers pursued channel cats in reservoirs of the southern plains.
Essentially, these pioneers employed the same tactics that the stream anglers used. The only difference was that the reservoir anglers made longer casts. Like the small-stream anglers, the reservoir catmen didn't use a boat, preferring instead to work from shore.
Most reasoned that the mudflats were too shallow for a boat. Some of these shoreline anglers even rationalized that a boat would be a detriment, thinking that in two to five feet of water it would spook the cats. So in the minds of these anglers, the shoreline approach became the stealthy way to catch cats in cold water, and the notion that anglers could slowly drift a boat across the flats and catch cats was nonsensical.
Another small breakthrough occurred in the 1980s, when anglers learned how to catch crappies at the flatland lakes throughout winter, and as they caught crappies, they accidentally caught a few channel cats along the edge of the submerged river channel in 15 to 30 feet of water. And that provoked some anglers to begin thinking about wintertime catfishing.
Despite these two significant leaps in knowledge, though, the vast majority of catmen across the Midwest remained in the dark ages until the last years of the 20th century. As reservoir catmen gradually emerged from their cocoon in the 1990s, they began employing some of the tools and methods of walleye, striped bass, crappie, and saltwater anglers.
In-Fisherman editor Steve Hoffman has played a major role in chronicling and even pioneering this age of enlightenment. Some of Hoffman's newfangled tactics stretch back into the 1980s, but those methods were so radical back then that few old-time catman paid the youthful Hoffman any heed. Times have changed, though, and nowadays some catmen are beginning to pay attention to Hoffman's revelations, and some of these folks take special notice when he starts promulgating theories about his forte: catching cats in cold water.
Here's one of Hoffman's most recent discoveries, which unfolded at Coralville Reservoir, Iowa, in April 2000. On this outing, Hoffman teamed with Al Lindner to reveal another way to waylay cold-water channel cats. Before arriving at Coralville, Hoffman and Lindner were on the Mississippi River near Cape Girardeau, Missouri, attempting to videotape a segment for In-Fisherman television.
But a nasty early-spring cold front spoiled their plans. To salvage the trip, they headed to Hoffman's old stomping grounds in southeastern Iowa. Most of Iowa had been buffeted by the same cold front that turned the blue cats on the Mississippi River sullen. The snow and frigid air caused Coralville water temperature to plummet from the mid-40ËšF range to 39ËšF.
Most catmen probably would say that kind of a drop in water temperature is such an inauspicious sign that they wouldn't bother to wet a line, but Hoffman and Lindner are intrepid souls. So on that cold, gray day, they launched their boat and headed to a featureless mudflat in the back of a secondary feeder creek, where the wind angled at 8 mph from the north.
Their plan was to begin drifting in two feet of water in the back of the creek and gradually work toward the main body of the reservoir at the mouth of the creek. They used four rods spread about five feet apart, stretching from the bow to the stern.
Tackle & Rigs
Their rods were Zebco White Rhinos, made of E-glass with a medium-heavy action and a soft tip. According to Hoffman, the soft tip absorbs the shock of the bait and slip sinker sliding across the bottom. Moreover, the soft tip allows a channel cat to unsuspectingly engulf a 2/0 circle hook tipped with a fresh slice of cutbait.
Hoffman contends that the rod and circle hook are critical components of this system. He describes that symbiotic relationship like this: As a cat takes the bait in its jowls and begins to load the rod, the circle hook rotates and is automatically set in corner of the cat's mouth. The angler never sets the hook; he merely waits until the rod is fully bent by the weight of the catfish, then removes the rod from the holder and fights the fish.
At Coralville, Hoffman and Lindner's medium-sized baitcasting reels were spooled with 15-pound Trilene Big Game monofilament and a 30-inch leader. But if they were working a snag-filled terrain, they probably would have opted for 20- or even 30-pound line. The leader was attached to a #7 barrel swivel, with a one-ounce egg sinker threaded on the main line above the swivel.
If Hoffman has his druthers, he prefers to use a one-ounce egg sinker. He rarely employs a sinker larger than an ounce, but when the speed of the drift is less than 1 mph, he often uses a 1/2-ounce weight. Hoffman contends that the heavier sinker stirs the bottom better and creates a louder racket, and he surmises that some cats are attracted to that noise and the sight of the mud disturbed on the bottom.
In regard to snags, Hoffman noted that a circle hook is extremely snag resistant. Its point rarely spears into a log or stump, but some anglers do have a problem working them through areas cluttered with a maze of thin limbs. The limbs become entwined inside the circle, making it difficult to shake and twitch the hook free. The best way to free the rig is to use heavy line and pull it free by breaking the small limbs.
Drifting Mechanics — Once the rods were rigged and the hooks baited, Hoffman and Lindner made a 60-foot cast with each rod. They didn't use the reels clickers. When drifting, Hoffman says, reel clickers should be used only with a stiffer graphite rod that doesn't absorb the initial pressure of a channel cat's strike. They left the reel drives engaged and placed the rods in rod holders as they drifted southward, heading from the back of the creek toward the mouth.
To keep the boat drifting sideways and the lines parallel and properly spread, Hoffman and Lindner used a drift sock. Wind is an important ingredient in reservoirs. Too many catmen, Hoffman says, are intimidated by wind and spend too much time chasing cats in leeward waters. If the wind blows at speeds approaching 20 mph, Hoffman recommends using two drift socks to slow the speed of the drift.
When drifting for cats — especially in 39ËšF water as it was at Coralville — it's important to slow the rate of the drift to less than 2 mph, and 1 mph probably is ideal. At times, however, the wind howls at such a horrid pace that it's necessary to drag anchors or heavy chain to slow the drift speed. A correlative advantage exists, according to Hoffman, in dragging chains or anchors, since they stir up the bottom and may attract cats. Be sure to check state regulations, though, since dragging objects on the bottom may not be legal.
For bait, Hoffman and Lindner used fillets of fresh chubs still dripping with blood and oils. Besides fresh chubs, Hoffman says that shrimp tails, sour shad sides, chicken livers, nightcrawlers, blood bait, and fresh gizzard shad also are effective baits for early-season drifting.
As Hoffman and Lindner slowly drifted across the shallow flat, their baits covered a 20-foot swath. They drifted from two feet into five feet of water without a bite. But once their baits reached the six- to eight-foot zone near the mouth, they caught and released their first channel cat. After that, they caught and released an array of fat cats, the biggest looked to be an 8-pounder.
Before the arrival of the cold front and snow, Hoffman suspected that the channel cats were meandering around in two to three feet of water at the back end of the creek. What's more, if the wind had been angling briskly from the south, the preponderance of cats would have been along the shallows of the upper end of the creek.
Channel cats begin to invade the mudflats of secondary feeder creeks soon after the ice melts, leaving their deep winter coverts to feed upon the carcasses of gizzard shad that died during winter. In addition, schools of gizzard shad roam the mudflats of secondary coves, and channel cats prey upon them, too.
Before this episode at Coralville, Hoffman had thought that warmer water lured the cats onto shallow mudflats. But after finding them in 39ËšF water in early April, he changed his opinion. The availability of forage, rather than warm water, probably compels the cats to sashay pellmell across shallow flats in late winter and early spring. Thus water temperature is just a secondary or tertiary element in the formula for determining the whereabouts of ice-out channel cats.
During this period, the shad and the marauding cats are so widely scattered across the massive mudflats that drifting is the most fruitful method for intercepting and then catching them. And in Hoffman's mind, a large secondary feeder creek is a more productive terrain to drift than the massive mudflats on the main body of the reservoir; those flats often are too massive for locating a concentration of channel cats.
Furthermore, the cats don't relate to specific spots, such as a drop-off, a point, or a submerged roadbed; they are roamers, and anglers have to roam with them. "If you aren't drifting," Hoffman concludes, "you probably aren't catching all the channel cats you could be catching in cold water."